Wasabi (2001) Movie Review

I am told by someone “in the know” that French action auteur Luc Besson and his favorite muse, Jean Reno, are celebrated idols in Japan. They are, to paraphrase, “big stuff” over there. What does this have to do with the two men’s latest effort, “Wasabi”? The relation is obvious because the movie is about Reno’s Frenchman who travels to Japan, where much of the movie takes place.

“Wasabi” is an action-comedy picture starring Jean Reno (“Leon”) as Hubert, a bellicose Paris cop who is still pining over his true love, a Japanese woman who left him under mysterious circumstances 19 years ago. Now, 19 years later, Hubert gets some bad and good news: his true love has passed away in Japan, but she’s left him his 19-year-old daughter who he didn’t know he had! Flying back to Japan, where he last spent time as a French intelligence officer (re: spy) during the Cold War era, Hubert re-teams with his ex-partner Momo (Michel Muller), becomes guardian to his daughter Yumi (who doesn’t know he’s her father), and finds himself being chased by dangerous looking Japanese men in black. It seems Miko, Hubert’s long-lost love, didn’t die of natural causes, but was in fact murdered, and now the bad guys are after Yumi!

Written by Besson (“Kiss of the Dragon”) and starring Reno, “Wasabi” is essentially a comedy with spurts of cartoonish action. For instance, when Hubert punches someone, they fly across the room like puppets. At just under 90 minutes, “Wasabi” is quick, fast-paced, and harmless enough to be enjoyable. You can’t fault a movie for having nothing to say and actually saying nothing, while at the same time providing some light comedy fodder via Reno as the straight man to Momo’s incompetent spy and Yumi’s frenetic and carefree wild child.

Being that “Wasabi” only has Besson’s name attached as writer and not director, there’s very little of the hyper action that his movies are known for. Films like “La Femme Nikita” and “Leon” have made fans expect superior, stylized action that leaves one breathless, or at the very least with jaws slightly open at the audacity of the man. “Wasabi” has none of those, which might leave a few Besson fans a little disappointed (and I count myself one).

“Wasabi” can best be described as a straightforward comedy. Thankfully the film never wears out its welcome, mostly because it’s so fast-paced and the whole thing is over before you realize just how empty it really is. This ain’t brain surgery, folks, and everyone involve seems to know that, from star Reno to producer Besson to the director.

Of course being that Reno is the straight man to Momo and Yumi, and this is a comedy, it is imperative that both Ryoko Hirosue (Yumi) and Michel Muller (Momo) don’t irritate the audience with obnoxious behavior. In this case, they don’t. Muller is slightly endearing (if pathetically so) as the clumsy spy who has lived in Japan for more than 20 years but still can’t speak a lick of Japanese. Hirosue is pleasantly charming as the chatty Yumi, who prances around in bright outfits and chats on her cellphone at every opportunity. The young woman never overacts to the point of annoyance, and that’s a good thing, because there are many opportunities for her character to become grating. Fortunately, she never does.

The plot of “Wasabi” seems like (and probably because it is) an afterthought. In fact, we don’t even see or hear from the chief villain until an hour of screen time has passed. Why? Most likely because Besson doesn’t care about the movie’s irrelevant conflict because it’s so pleasant to watch Reno try to keep up with the hyper Yumi, who skips and bounces rather than walks.

“Wasabi” consists of one comedy segment after another. There isn’t even as much culture clash as one would expect or like. Besides a few punches thrown by Hubert at some bothersome Japanese officials at the airport, the movie seems to go out of its way to avoid any Fist Out of Water elements or culture clash moments. Too bad, because I believe there was a lot of comedy to be mined here. The fact that so little exists is probably a deliberate decision by producer/writer Besson not to insult his prime audience, the Japanese.

So sit down for some “Wasabi.” You certainly won’t leave feeling the worst for having seen it. Or for the better, for that matter.

G’rard Krawczyk (director) / Luc Besson (screenplay)
CAST: Jean Reno …. Hubert Fiorentini
Ryoko Hirosue …. Yumi Yoshimido
Michel Muller …. Momo
Carole Bouquet …. Sofia

Buy Wasabi on DVD